Obama guards his legacy

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President Obama sought to define his foreign policy legacy Wednesday with commencement address at West Point that argued restraint and collaboration were more effective in fighting terrorism than large-scale military efforts.

The president defended the role of international institutions in combating dangers both traditional and new, from global warming to cyber crime.

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He warned the United States could not always be the “hammer” and that military action left the nation vulnerable to “costly mistakes.”

“Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail,” he said.

The calls for multilateralism were echoes of Obama’s successful first presidential campaign, when he argued that the war in Iraq had turned off U.S. allies, lowering U.S. influence and prestige.

It was designed to head off criticism from Republican lawmakers and foreign policy experts who argue his reluctance to use military force has emboldened enemies and weakened American influence.

It was also intended to bolster Obama’s case for his foreign policy: that he presided over the end of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and increased America’s influence overseas by working with other countries.

Obama’s foreign policy once polled well, but his approach is no longer popular.

A CBS News poll released last week showed just 39 percent of respondents approved of the president’s handling of foreign policy, versus 48 percent who disapproved. 

Those figures come despite Obama largely aligning himself with public sentiment on how the United States should — and shouldn’t — intervene on the world stage. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey last month found 47 percent of respondents arguing the United States should be less active in world affairs, versus fewer than two in 10 who advocated for a stepped-up role.

“The problem isn’t just that Republicans are critical of his foreign policy,” said Bruce Jones, a senior fellow and director of the Brookings Project on International Order and Strategy. “He's basically lost Democrats as well in terms of the commentariat: journalists, pundits, foreign policy bloggers, think tankers.”

Looking to make up some of that lost ground, Obama repeatedly took direct aim at his critics during his Wednesday speech.

He proclaimed that those who “suggest that America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away, are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics.”

Obama also said he would betray his duty to the troops if he dispatched them every time somewhere in the world “needed fixing, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.” 

But Republicans charged Obama has underestimated the threats faced by the United States on a global stage.

“In many corners of the globe, the world is growing more unstable, with a tide of militancy facing the United States and our allies,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.). “If these challenges are to be met, the President must explain the high stakes to the American people, which demands more than a yearly speech.”   

Critics also accused the president of unfairly simplifying their arguments.

“It is unfortunate that the president once again fell back on his familiar tactic of attacking straw men, posturing as the voice of reason between extremes, and suggesting that the only alternative to his policies is the unilateral use of military force everywhere,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), among the GOP’s most vocal proponents for a more aggressive foreign policy. “Literally no one is proposing that, and it is intellectually dishonest to suggest so.”

Jones said that while Obama delivered a “sensible speech about sensible policy” toward transnational threats, civil wars and terrorism, he skirted critiques that he had not done enough to prevent the rise of China or Russia’s incursions into Eastern Europe.

“He glossed over those two points that have been at the center of criticism among those who think we’re on the verge of the collapse of international order,” Jones said.

Bruce Jentleson, a scholar at the Wilson Center and a political science professor at Duke University, said Obama was successful in articulating the view that America’s foreign policy should find a middle ground between isolationism and an excessive use of military power.

But the president fell short, Jentleson asserted, in articulating a cohesive strategy on how to achieve that goal. He said he was disappointed that a speech designed to win back foreign policy intellectuals didn’t engage in the terms or institutions of their field.

“I think the goal is to have someone say, ‘I might not agree with his approach, but I’ve got to give him credit that he has articulated it well,’ ” Jentleson said. “But there are concepts we've been working with for a long long time — deterrence, coercive diplomacy — and he doesn’t use that terminology. It fell short on that.”

Ironically, the complaint was similar to one Obama lodged — but against his Republican opponents, whom he accused of bumper-sticker solutions to foreign policy crises. 

"Some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences, without building international support and legitimacy for our action or leveling with the American people about the sacrifice required," Obama said. "Tough talk draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans."